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The Waning of Obama

Barack Obama, Dinesh D’Souza and I went to college at almost the same time. Obama was at one end of Los Angeles (Occidental College), while I was at the other end (Pomona College). “We smoked cigarettes,” Obama wrote in Dreams From My Father, “and wore leather jackets. At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy. When we ground out our cigarettes in the hallway carpet or set our stereos so loud that the walls began to shake, we were resisting bourgeois society’s stifling constraints. We weren’t indifferent or careless or insecure. We were alienated.” My cigarettes didn’t have tobacco in them, and thanks to KSPC’s press pass I spent as much time outside the Roxy “discoursing” with such luminaries as Jello Biafra and Nina Hagen; I imagine if Obama had turned the corner, he might have joined us. We had Fanon and radical feminism in common. California über alles!

Dinesh was on the other coast, at Dartmouth, where I imagine him in an Oxford shirt and tie, smiling in his quiet way on the deck of some plutocrat’s house where his Dartmouth Review colleagues repaired for the weekend. When I first read his Illiberal Education (1991), I longed to reach out and hand him a joint. My best classes in college had us read the books that Dinesh excoriated: Fanon, for instance. It tells you something about how poorly Dinesh reads when you get to his section on Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (pp. 78-79). “Much of his book is a crude rationalization of violence,” writes our Dartmouth graduate. Anyone who has actually read the book knows that “Concerning Violence” is only one chapter in a very complex book about the legacy of colonialism and the post-colonial present (another chapter, “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness” is a fierce indictment of the post-colonial regimes, and it does not “cater to a guilty Western audience”).

In his What’s So Great About America (2002), Dinesh has a chapter called “Two Cheers for Colonialism,” a little play on E. M. Forester’s 1951 Two Cheers for Democracy. It is perhaps useful to mention that Dinesh D’Souza was born in Goa in 1961, the year that the Indian republic invaded the Portuguese colony, annexed it to India, and undermined the Bamon (Roman Catholic Brahmin) community to which D’Souza’s family belongs. Dinesh’s allergy to anti-colonialism cannot be reduced to India’s invasion of his family’s domestic bliss (for that would be as reductive as what he does to Obama in his new book), but it is certainly useful context. In What’s So Great, Dinesh quotes a line from Fanon, which he repeats in his new book: “The well-being and progress of Europe have been built up with the sweat and the dead bodies of Negroes, Arabs, Indians and the yellow races” (p. 76 of Wretched).

Historians are now quite in agreement that the emergence of capitalism in the Atlantic world benefitted greatly, if not was produced by, the values appropriated from the slave trade and colonial plantation labor. Fanon’s dictum is humdrum. Not so for Dinesh, and the Right, who would much rather take Max Weber’s view, that capitalism emerges because of the Protestant instinct towards thrift. If you take Weber’s position, then resentment for colonial wrongs and poverty due to the political economy of colonialism are off the table. The answer to the whinging from the South: get on with it. Without a consideration of the history of colonialism, and of the unequal political-economic arrangements of our current world, people in the United States don’t have enough tools to properly grasp the contemporary international dynamics. If it is ignorance you want, or simply arrogance, Dinesh is good stuff.

Dinesh’s handle on Fanon and neo-colonialism was weak then, and incoherent now. In his new book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage, Dinesh reaches into the deep well of conspiracy and paranoia to make Obama the Manchurian President. Obama, for Dinesh, is neither a liberal, nor a socialist in the European sense. Worse than that, Obama is literally a child of his father (whose dreams he continues to dream). Barack Obama, Sr. (1936-1982) came to Hawaii as a student, married Ann Dunham, and they gave birth to their only child, Barack “Barry” Obama. Obama, jr. was born in 1961, and saw his father until early 1964 (when his parents divorced) and then again briefly in 1971. Their contact was limited, and Senior’s influence was mute.

What the Father was, the Son becomes: that is Dinesh’s method. In July 1965, in the heyday of the Third World Project, Obama, Sr., published an essay in the East Africa Journal called “Problems Facing Our Socialism.” It is standard fare for a government economist of his caliber, particularly in his avowal of self-reliant growth for his country (Kenya) and anxiety over too close association with either the Atlantic bloc (laissez faire, in his terms) or the Warsaw Pact (“Marxian socialism”). Every country wants to be independent, he argues, so non-alignment with the superpowers is the natural bent of most new nation-states. The problem is how to break out of dependence. But there are limits “because of our lack of basic resources and skilled manpower, yet one can choose to develop by the bootstraps rather than become a pawn of some foreign power such as Sékou Touré did” (the reference is to Ahmed Sékou Touré’s policy of linking Guinea’s development to the USSR; to be fair, Touré tried to make good with JFK, but lost the momentum when he blamed the CIA for the arrest of a Guinean delegation in post-coup Ghana in 1965). Obama, Sr., wants not association with Moscow, nor with Washington or London. He wants Kenya to rule itself (or at least be ruled by the post-colonial elite who took over western Nairobi for its ecumene).

Dinesh misses the plot of the essay. He paints Obama, Sr., as a radical Third World nationalist in the mold of Modibo Keïta and Kwame Nkrumah. This is superficial. Obama, Sr., was certainly a Kenyan nationalist, one who was eager for a fair bargain for the Kenyan people, but he was not Africa’s Castro. He was more like Rómulo Betancourt, the bourgeois leader of Venezuela whose nationalism was only as fierce as his attachment to the survival of his country. Or else, his essay reads very much like Alexander Hamilton’s remarkable, and little read, 1791 “Report on Manufacturers.” Can’t get much more patriotic than that. Nevertheless, both Newt Gingrich and Glenn Beck jumped up and down in glee in agreement with Dinesh. This is the kind of blather that passes for analysis on the Right. There is no need for the fantasy critique of Dinesh D’Souza, or the mad hatter slogans of the Tea Party. To them, the slogan of Talleyrand, “All that is exaggerated is insignificant.”

Those who read Fanon seriously are not blind advocates of Obama’s innings in the White House. Indeed, the Left has been far more sincerely critical of the genuine problems in Washington than the Right, which is keen on wedge issues, on lies and on diversions. I wanted Obama to win the 2008 election for one simple reason: it was a stubby brown finger in the eye of white supremacy. I had few expectations for his presidency. In early 2009 I began to write a play set in the White House Master Bedroom, with Barack and Michelle Obama in bed, reading Fanon and Toni Cade Bambara, wondering what they were doing in this mess. Sandwiched by Wall Street and the Pentagon, by the far Right Republicans and the near Right Democrats, there was so little room to maneuver. The electoral calendar (elections every two years) precludes any long-range reform, and the corporate money (Citizens United) makes it hard to sell any long-term policy in a media-saturated political climate. The context leaves them in a miserable state.

Obama, the person, is not relevant to me. Even the most radical person in the White House would not be able to move an agenda without some fundamental reform of the political system, or an active people’s movement ready to beat back the Right and the plutocrats, as well as to hold its leader accountable. Nothing like that now, or in the near future. In December 1971, Newsweek put our predicament well, “The relationship between money and politics is so organic that seeking reform is tantamount to asking a doctor to perform open-heart surgery on himself.” It is not just money, as I’ve pointed out, but the electoral calendar, and indeed the archaic system of the Electoral College, of the demographic inequality in the Senate, and of fear among the population to break from the comforts of the two-party system. In 2008, Robert Kuttner (founder of The American Prospect) wanted Obama to “restore taxes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans, reduce spending on foreign wars, incur temporary larger deficits, and use the proceeds for very substantial social investments” (Obama’s Challenge). Such idealism always results in acute disappointment.

The dark night of the Bush years, and the immense frustration with the result of his 2004 re-election, provided the electricity for the 2008 election campaign. Obama appeared not so much for his own views, or lack thereof, but as one of Hegel’s Heroes, those who derive “their purposes and their vocation, not from the calm, regular course of things, sanctioned by the existing order; but from a concealed fount, from the inner Spirit, still hidden beneath the surface.” The standard bearer had to be Myth, and so he won with a margin of seven million votes. It had to be so. Unlike Hegel’s Hero, however, Obama could not move the inner kernel to burst its shell into pieces. He was paralyzed by it.

Circumstances might have forced him to inhabit the progressive ideal, but Fanon’s “granite block,” the vast pressure of Wealth and Power, took its revenge on History. It is this that holds the attention of Tariq Ali, whose The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad (Verso, 2010) documents the collapse of the Myth into a thousand pieces (David Remnick’s The Bridge, Knopf, 2010 admits to much of the same defenestration of a New Deal charter into the Potomac, where it floated past the Pentagon to hearty cheers). Tariq indicts Obama for hypocrisy and a failure of nerve, whether in dealing with the banking crisis or the escalation in Afghanistan. The charge sheet is comprehensive, but of course not exhaustive (it is a 100 page book).

It is even stronger in Cathy Cohen’s powerful Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics (Oxford, 2010), which shows how black youth remain in structural desolation, with few good jobs, high rates of incarceration and no trust in the institutions that seem to encage them. Politicians like to reduce the structural problems to personal failures, to blame the victim in some ways, because it is much easier and cheaper to do so (eat better, don’t drink soda, they tell the poor; far more difficult to force the food industry to stop using high fructose corn syrup, fat and salt to addict us). Cathy will have none of it. She is fierce in her recovery of the structural dynamic, and in insisting that the malaise in public policy be removed in favor of a forthright acknowledgement of the barriers put before the disposable classes in the country.

The insistence on the structural returns us to colonialism and to Fanon. American power falters in the thickets of its wars. If one knows nothing of one’s enemy, then one must only strive for its obliteration. There is something genocidal about the refusal to understand (this is an ethic shared by Islamic fundamentalism and Washington globalization). The charge of naïveté is thrown at those who counsel dialogue, but the same indictment applies to those whose foreign policy starts and ends with the B2 stealth bomber. It is of course naïve to expect the leadership of al-Qaeda and the Obama administration to conduct a conclave. It is, however, reasonable to demand that the inequities of colonial rule and the unequal architecture of the post-colonial world order be redressed to create the conditions in the future for human relations to be possible. Such was the demand of the Third World Project, of which Fanon was such an important intellectual figure. We can get out of the severe conflicts of our time only if we restore meaning to the great ideas of the Project.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu